Sports views: Casual Sunday: NFL becomes the Not (so) Formal League

Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2005

Either way, what should have been a neat little story is already well on its way to becoming a marketing rollout.

It began when Nolan petitioned the league for permission to dress the way Dick Nolan did when he coached on the same sideline in San Francisco from 1968-75. The son wasn't looking for attention or an endorsement deal, or even trying to shame his counterparts into cleaning up their act. Just a way to give props to the father whose pictures are scattered around his office.

''I think it's respectful,'' Nolan recently told his hometown newspaper, then added, ''What I was trying to say, there's somebody in charge and this is what they look like.''

Not in the NFL, they don't. At least not yet.

For the upcoming season, the somebodies in charge will still look as if they got dressed at souvenir stands, and worse. They'll wear baggy sweat shirts and hoodies, shiny track suits, polos and mock T-shirts — all the clothing supplied by Reebok, sanctioned by the league and available on store shelves by next fall.

You don't have to work at NFL headquarters to understand that money makes the world go 'round. Three-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick might look, as one TV commentator put it, ''like a homeless man.'' But those gray hooded sweat shirts the Patriots coach models on the sideline sell like mad across New England.

That's why Reebok signed a 10-year deal with the league in 2002 that one official said paid more than the $250 million sum reported. It's also why Nolan can't wear a dress shirt, sport coat or tie — because the sportswear giant doesn't currently make any of those items.

''And if we don't make it,'' Reebok spokesman Eddie White said Tuesday, ''he can't wear it.''

The NFL defends the rule because money from the sponsorship deal that covers both coaches and players means a higher salary cap. Baseball managers have long worn uniforms, just like their players. The NBA, on the other hand, has mandated that coaches wear sport coats or suits since the 1981-82 season.

The only violation anybody in the league office could recall occurred in March, when Denver coach George Karl wore a throwback Nuggets jersey over a white, long-sleeved shirt. Fortunately, he had the good sense to finish off the ensemble with blue sweat pants instead of shorts.

The last NFL coach to wear a shirt and tie was the Vikings' Mike Tice, beneath an officially licensed sweater vest. He quit doing that after the 2003 season, at the request of the league. The last coach to dress up in coat and tie was Dan Reeves, and he traded them in for a polo shirt after moving to Atlanta in 1997, around the time the NFL started getting serious about licensed apparel.

Reeves, like Dick Nolan, was mentored by former Cowboys coach Tom Landry, whose photos make him look like a relic. Landry, like Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Paul Brown, learned their chops in a different era, favored snap-brimmed fedoras, porkpie hats and tweed coats, and had profiles so distinct you could identify them in silhouette.

Not so with today's NFL coaches. According to lore, the tipping point came in 1986, when then-Jets coach Joe Walton showed up for a Monday night game against the Dolphins wearing an ugly green sweater with the team's name emblazoned on the chest. Callers flooded the Jets' switchboard the next day asking where they could buy one. Now that supply has caught up with demand, coaches and fans look as though they came to the stadium right after mowing the lawn.

The most hopeful thing to be said about Nolan's campaign is that by the season after next, assuming he's still employed in San Francisco, he and 49ers fans might look as though they went through the trouble of cleaning up after chores. The sad thing is that the league's fashion police didn't compromise, letting Nolan wear a coat and tie this season with a logo pinned to the lapels.

Instead, officials from the league and Reebok plan to meet with the coach in the next few months to design some dressier duds in time for the 2006 season.

''Maybe not a coat and tie,'' NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said, still hedging his bets, ''but it will be something nice.''

With the appropriate lead time, it will also be made, test-marketed and probably pushed in an expensive ad campaign likely to tout the same old-school virtues Nolan wanted to evoke in the first place — but without all the fanfare.

''There was certainly no deal,'' he said when news of his request became public. ''No one came to me, there was nothing to gain.''

But only because the NFL and its official supplier began wondering if there were people out there who might wear throwbacks that don't make it look as if they're getting ready to wash the car.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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